'A Tapestry of Rich and Royal Hues' - My Life as an Undertaker by Annette Lourigan

Photo by Joaquim Salat on Unsplash

Photo by Joaquim Salat on Unsplash

I have been involved in the funeral sector since October 1997. My roles have included community engagement to promoting cardboard coffins. However it is my role as Undertaker/Funeral Director that keeps me putting on my uniform. There is something truly humbling and beautiful when a stranger allows you into their world, when they trust you with the ritual of a loved ones memory and physical being.

In almost 20 years of serving families I still don't know the magic words. What I do know is sometimes we need to be present and let the person who is grieving speak, sometimes they just need to be heard. I also believe that a cup of tea, warm hand on a shoulder and an act of kindness can say exactly what we mean to say better than words ever can.

When I first started I had a man say to me "Annette, you are a Christian, how do you cope with all the people who are going to hell?". I haven't spoke to that idiot since. Society creates taboos around death and by doing so we have diminished the gift of life. I hope that by the time each of us take our final breath that together we will have returned a loving, sacred and caring death culture back to Australia.

There are so many memorable moments in my work... Some days are filled with the weight of tragedy as people try to navigate the abyss and chaos of an unexpected, horrific death. Other days make your heart smile as you place 80 year old love letters into the hands of a woman who is 95 and dressed in her wedding dress. Some days you go home and hug your family for longer as you try to find rhyme and reason in the timing of death. Some days you are captivated by the extraordinary adventures and lives of very ordinary people. Every family that I have served has given me a sacred piece of them to keep.

Annette Lourigan

Annette Lourigan

It was not until I was diagnosed with breast cancer did I truly respect the finite time I have on this Earth to love and laugh. Somewhere in dealing with the reality of death did I find the real beauty of life. Hugs need to have meaning, they should not just be for social graces, friends should be real, not just a tally on our Facebook, my time with my daughter is not endless and every moment with her matters. If you can take the time to watch a dew drop on a leaf, absorb the glint of the sun in it, think about the importance of the dew drop to the leaf and ultimately the plant. Stay with that dew drop till it is no more; that is life a fleeting moment in something bigger than all of us, yet that dew drop had a unique and important place in the big picture. Our life is finite, the legacy that we leave however is not.

If I could go back to the 1940's and stop the moment we took death and dying from homes and family I would. I firmly believe that in doing so we took away the reality of death and created an isolated, homogenised death culture that has taken away our right/rite to truly grieve. I would stand on my soapbox and fight the industrialisation of death practices.

I hope my death bed allows me two weeks of indulgence. The first week will be spent with my friends and family, together they will learn from each other why they matter, what beautiful gifts they have given and we will drink very good bubbles. The second week will be for my Family and closest members of my tribe, this will be the time to talk of love, the realities of life and to cry in amongst the laughter. I do hope that my last breath is taken with my hand being held by my Daughters under my big tree.

Everybody who loves me knows I am to be placed in a shroud made of natural fibre, placed in a shallow depth grave and have a big old gum tree spring from my heart. I did donate my right breast for cancer research, I am comfortable with my brain heading off for a little more study, though I do want to give back to our Earth, she has been mighty generous with me.

My list of funeral songs grows and changes frequently, there could be a whole radio station assigned to it, however the song that has always been there and always will is "Tapestry" by Carol King. My life truly is a tapestry of rich and royal hues, one side shows the colours with clarity, the real side shows the knots, the greys and shadows. I hope I am carried out to Paul Kelly's "Meet me in the middle of the air", it is a stirring rendition of the Twenty Third Psalm, when I hear it I hope that those who have gone before me will be waiting for me.

I hope that I am remember with love, I hope that I will be known for being authentic. I hope that I have informed every Australian that their death ritual belongs to them and that they really do need a Will, Advanced Health Directive and Enduring Power of Attorney. I do know though that my greatest legacy will be my Daughter, Hayley - she is my best work.